Tag Archives: Art

325. THE HYPOTHESIS OF THE STOLEN PAINTING (1978)

L’hypothèse du tableau volé

“People love mystery, and that is why they love my paintings.”–

“Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?”–William Butler Yeats

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jean Rougeul

PLOT: An unseen narrator explains that an exhibition of seven related paintings from the fictional artist Fredéric Tonnerre caused a scandal in the 19th century and were removed from public view. We are then introduced to the Collector, who owns six of the seven paintings—one of them has been stolen, he explains, leaving the story told through the artwork incomplete. Using live actors to recreate the canvases, the Collector walks through the paintings and constructs a bizarre interpretation of their esoteric meaning.

Still from The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1978)

BACKGROUND:

  • Raoul Ruiz is credited with more than 100 films in a career that lasted from 1964 until his death in 2011.
  • Cinematographer Sacha Vierny had an equally distinguished career that spanned five decades. Especially known for his collaborations with and , he lensed the Certified Weird films Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Belle de Jour (1967), The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover (1989), Prospero’s Books (1991), and The Pillow Book (1996).
  • Ruiz was originally hired by a French television channel to produce a documentary on writer/painter Pierre Klossowski. The project morphed into this fictional story that adapts themes and plots from several of Klossowski’s works, especially “La Judith de Frédéric Tonnerre” and “Baphomet.”
  • Many of the figurants in the tableaux vivants were writers and staff from the influential journal “Cahiers du Cinema.” Future film star Jean Reno, in his first screen appearance, is also among those posing.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Obviously, one of the tableaux vivants—the three dimensional recreations of Tonnerre’s paintings featuring motionless, silent actors. From Diana and the hunt to Knights Templar playing chess, these are (perhaps) inexplicable scenes which, the narrator explains, “play[s] carefully on our curiosity as spectators who arrived too late.” The strangest of all is the tableau of a young man stripped to the waist with a noose around his neck, surrounded by men, one holding a cross, others in turbans and brandishing daggers, and three of whom are conspicuously pointing at objects within the scene. Hanging above them is a suspended mask.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: The hanged youth; whispering narrator; Knights Templar of Baphomet

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Performed with art house restraint in an impishly surreal spirit, this labyrinthine, postmodern meditation on art criticism plays like a movie done in the style of Last Year at Marienbad, adapted from a lost Jorge Luis Borges story.


Opening of The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting

COMMENTS: The ultimate question Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting Continue reading 325. THE HYPOTHESIS OF THE STOLEN PAINTING (1978)

CAPSULE: DARK ARC (2004)

DIRECTED BY: Dan Zukovic

FEATURING: Sara Strange, Dan Zukovic, Kurt Max Runte

PLOT: Three people are drawn together by their obsession with artistic imagery and the persistence of memory into a web of deceit, manipulation, and violence.

Still from Dark Arc (2004)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With meticulous visuals, florid dialogue, and a mannered indifference to others, Dark Arc is certainly not a typical movie. Most of the strangeness, however, lies in its attitude, which may be strikingly aggressive toward its audience, but isn’t particularly “weird” for the purposes of our list.

COMMENTS: I have a vivid memory of my first visceral reaction to a piece of art. Several pieces, actually. It was at the MoMA in New York, and I wandered into a room filled with paintings by Piet Mondrian, an artist who I had previously mocked as being easily reproduced with three primary colors and a roll of gaffer tape. But walking into a gallery filled with five or six of these abstract window-like creations, I was immediately struck by their power. Given their resemblance to stained glass, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to call it a sacred experience.

Watching Dark Arc, I suspect that writer-director-star-songwriter Dan Zukovic—or at least his pretentious blowhard art critic character—would mock my reaction and attempt to trap me in a room full of red, yellow, and blue squares. His movie, ostensibly about the power of art but more accurately a look at unchecked obsession, exudes great hostility for… well, everyone, really, but especially anyone who is committed to a vision or a goal. Our heroes are poorly or not-at-all employed, indifferent to or contemptuous of the rest of humanity, and barely tolerant of themselves. So art is less of an escape and more of a millstone around their necks.

Dark Arc is frequently referred to as a comedy, and I suppose it might be, in the Chekhovian sense of featuring pathetic people who are trapped by their own absurdities. Viscount Laris, the ex-critic whom Zukovic plays like a vampiric John C. McGinley, even references Chekhov’s gun when he references a narwhal tusk that will “go off in the final act.” (It doesn’t, entirely.) But Zukovic treats these people with deadly seriousness. Laris and Lamia, the “no-sex escort” whom he enlists in a strange campaign to screw with the head of a graphic designer who he once encountered in his youth, spar with dialogue like screwball comedians with advanced degrees, but they are absolutely committed to the nastiness of their scheming. The movie emerges as a quasi-spin on Dangerous Liaisons, particularly in the film’s finale, which reads as a sort of punishment for having ever interacted with a piece of art.

It’s tempting to assign more prescient thoughtfulness to the picture than was probably intended. Dark Arc posits that art has the ability to burn itself into our brains, and its stars go to extraordinary lengths to recapture the initial power of an image. Like fans obsessed with their favorite blockbuster franchise or smartphone owners who can’t tears their gaze away from the screen, these characters are in thrall to the visuals, and their efforts to re-create them are so all-consuming as to evoke a drug addict’s chase for the thrill of that first high. Their actions are equally anti-social, not just isolating but actively against society.

And give credit to Zukovic for having an eye for a picture. In a film so dependent upon the conviction that someone could throw away their own life for an image, he’s come up with some powerful ones to make the case. The most potent is the keystone image of Strange alone in a colorless field, arrestingly unmissable in a shocking pink raincoat, a snapshot that could have been plucked right out of Pleasantville. It’s hardly surprising that the tableau opens and closes the film, in addition to its many recurrences.

But one image does not a great or even a weird film make, and Dark Arc can’t wring much out of a conflict that is ultimately so evitable. In fact, the film walks such a straight line to its conclusion as to make a lie out of its title: these are dark people, walking deliberately and unwaveringly toward a dark end, but there is no arc. Nobody changes, nobody advances, nobody has a single thought that would dispute Zukovic’s thesis that everyone is awful. One might argue that there’s more of an arc in a bunch of black lines and colored squares.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I almost get the feeling that Mr. Zukovic watched a lot of David Lynch films, and decided to try to replicate the haunting noirish tones that are present in each of Lynch’s movies but came up a little short.”–Mike D, The Film Philosopher

(This movie was nominated for review by David Veleker, who called it “an extremely bizarre, psycho-surreal noir-ish Art Film… Great twisted stuff.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: FRANCOFONIA (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Benjamin Utzerath, Vincent Nemeth, Johanna Korthals Altes, Aleksandr Sokurov

PLOT: An experimental documentary on the Louvre, with dramatic recreations of the Nazi takeover and Napoleon showing up in the museum after hours.

Srill from Fancofonia (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This stream-of-consciousness companion piece to Russian Ark, Aleksandr Sokurov‘s amazing one-shot exploration of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage, is too messy with too many wild hairs. Ultimately, it seems to be more about Sokurov’s own artistic whims and impulses than it is about the Louvre.

COMMENTS: As the opening credits scroll, we hear director Sokurov take (scripted) phone calls regarding post-production work on his latest movie (presumably Francofonia itself). The second caller (“Captain Dirk,” who we’ll meet again later) asks about the director’s progress and he confesses “I don’t think the film is successful.”

I generally agree, although any movie that spotlights so many masterpieces from the Louvre can’t be a complete failure. Sokurov is a true connoisseur of European art (as seen in Russian Ark) and has a legitimate love for the Louvre, but this documentary/narrative hybrid piece shows no real organization or purpose. It’s like a spur-of-the-moment whirlwind trip to a museum. Partly, Sokurov wants to give an account of how deputy Louvre director Jacques Joujard hid the museum’s treasures from the Nazis ahead of the occupation of Paris in 1940, with the silent blessing of Count Franz Wolff-Metternich, the cultured professor Hitler had appointed as “caretaker” of French cultural treasures. This potentially interesting story is told with both archival footage and recreations using actors. But Sokurov masks his straightforward tale with multiple digressions: his own poeticized musings on European culture; a mysterious character who runs around the darkened Louvre in a gown saying “liberté, égalité, fraternité”; the ghost of Napoleon (who shows up to point out his own portraits); Sokurov’s fanciful Skype discussions with the aforementioned Captain Dirk, who’s carrying a load of museum-bound historical treasures on a freighter imperiled by rough seas; and so on.

Francofonia suffers by comparison with Russian Ark, whose one-take, two-character gimmick imposed structure and discipline on the film while still allowing Sokurov to indulge his imagination. Sokurov is intelligent, and his a love for museums and for the preservation of European high culture comes across, but Francofonia is so scattershot that his passion is dissipated. A conventional documentary would hit at least as hard: indeed, moments when the camera merely pans over the straining figures of “The Raft of the Medusa,” or passes each curl in an Assyrian lamassu’s beard, or zooms in so we can see the intimate cracks in the “Mona Lisa”‘s aging canvas, are the film’s strongest sights.

Sokurov says he wants to create cinematic tributes to Madrid’s Prado and London’s British Museum next. I hope he finds a more interesting angle from which to film these projects than he did for his Louvre piece.

The Music Box Francofonia DVD or Blu-ray includes two substantial extras, each about an hour long: the making of documentary “Visitors to the Louvre” and “The Man Who Saved the Louvre,” a conventional documentary (which the DVD refers to as a “play”) on Jacques Joujard.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sometimes the bizarre can illuminate the poignant, sometimes it distracts. In ‘Francofonia’ it most definitely distracts… terribly over-directed and seems strange just for the sake of being strange.”–Tom Long, Detroit Free Press (contemporaneous)

SATURDAY SHORT: HUGH THE HUNTER (2015)

“This is the tale of Hugh the Hunter, and the remarkable things he sees… And that see him.” Hugh the Hunter (2015) is a not-so-typical hunting story inspired by and starring artist Hugh Hayden. When an artist’s work is made into live-action, it often lacks plot to keep it interesting. Under the direction of Zachary Heinzerling, this short is an exception.

LIST CANDIDATE: RUSSIAN ARK (2002)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Aleksandr Sokurov

FEATURING: Sergey Dreyden, Aleksandr Sokurov

PLOT: In one take, a ghostlike figure wanders through the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, watching re-enactments of Russian history and debating art and culture with a French aristocrat.

Still from Russian Ark (2002)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: As the longest unbroken take in the history of cinema, Russian Ark is somewhat experimental in form, and with its intermingling of various eras of Russian history inside the Hermitage museum, it is somewhat surreal in content. Viewed simply as tour de force filmmaking, it’s worth seeing for the curious and cultured, and a must-see for film school types. The film’s only drawback is that its high art, highly Russophilic preoccupations make it unavoidably stuffy at times, and risk limiting its appeal to the tea-and-crumpets (er, samovar-and-beluga?) crowd.

COMMENTS: Who is the main character of Russian Ark? Ghost? Amnesiac time traveler? Dreamer? Or just a metaphorical representative of the Russian spirit? The speaker through whose eyes we watch Russian Ark remembers some vague accident, but opens his eyes to see women in furs and feathered headdresses emerging from a carriage; accompanied by men in formal scarlet military uniforms, he judges their fashions to be from the 1800s. He’s swept along with the guests from a snowy courtyard through a wooden door; he eventually deduces he is the Winter Palace section of the Hermitage, the ancient home of the Czars that was turned into the world’s largest art museum. No can see or hear him until he encounters an older man in black, who is equally lost in time and space; this is the Marquis, who will be his companion through the rest of his odyssey through the Hermitage.

That journey involves the pair passing through the various rooms of the museum, some of which are occupied by today’s art patrons, and some by ghosts from prior ages, including Peter the Great, Anastasia, and Catherine the Great (who is looking for a chamberpot). Curiously, there is little focus on the individual works of art; the camera rarely gives the paintings and statuary more than a passing glance, instead maintaining a constant wide-angle view of each sprawling, packed chamber. We watch courtly episodes from history and eavesdrop on some conversations, but the meat of the movie are the conversations between the European Marquis and the modern Russian through whose eyes we see the museum. Some of their dialogue is absurd, but much of it is self-reflective hand-wringing over the state of Russian culture. Russians come off as having a bit of an inferiority complex towards Europe. The Marquis sneers that Russians are great copyists in the fine arts, but produce nothing original; all the great works in the museum come from the French, the Italians, or others. He is disdainful towards the Russian people, yet he is slowly won over by the final scene, a massive Czarist ball where he joins in a mazurka with the ghosts of past maidens. Overcome with nostalgia for the lovely aristocratic past, the Marquis decides to stay behind at the phantasmagorical ballet. His decision validates the Ark’s role in preserving Western culture, but the Russian chooses to go on without him, headed towards an unknown destiny. Although we get a few clues as to the man behind the point-of-view’s identity, it isn’t really important. Russian Ark‘s main character is actually the Hermitage.

Russian Ark was shot in a single 87-minute take with a digital camera that followed the characters through thirty-three rooms of the Winter Palace. The cast included over 2,000 extras, and a full orchestra, all of whom had to be costumed and choreographed. Rehearsals lasted for months before the shot was attempted. Depending on which source you believe, the take was flawlessly executed on either the third or the fourth attempt. (To make things slightly easier, the sound was recorded later). Only one day was allocated to actual filming.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If cinema is sometimes dreamlike, then every edit is an awakening. ‘Russian Ark’ spins a daydream made of centuries.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Jenn, who insightfully suggested that it was “perhaps artsy instead of weird” but added “[i]t is super pretty and certainly unusual and dreamy.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

366 UNDERGROUND: WELCOME TO NOWHERE (BULLET HOLE ROAD)

Watch Welcome to Nowhere (Bullet Hole Road) free at NoBudge until Oct. 18.

DIRECTED BY: William Cusick

FEATURING: Brian Greer, Nick Bixby, Lorraine Mattox, Tina Balthazar, Cara Francis, Peter Blomquist, Stacey Collins, Kevin Gebhard, Stephanie Silver

PLOT: As described in the press kit: “a surrealistic take on the American Road Story, this experimental film follows the overlapping encounters of five strangers as they struggle to exist in the desert of the American West.”

still-of-lorraine-mattox-in-welcome-to-nowhere-(bullet-hole-road)

COMMENTS:  As mentioned above, Welcome to Nowhere is an Experimental Film—there’s not so much a linear story that’s presented here as a collection of tropes associated with the road movie and the American West. There’s the doomed couple (are they adulterers?) meeting miserably in motel rooms and throwing furtive glances at each other; loners and psychos; hookers waiting for johns (or dead in motel rooms), and state troopers with mirrored sunglasses.

As such, one can construct scenarios from the bits and pieces presented, and those looking for an overall plot will be disappointed. The emphasis is on atmosphere, which Nowehere has in abundance. And at under an hour, doesn’t wear itself out. It’s a tone poem, and the result is very refreshing, if the viewer is open to the experience. The film is based on a performance piece by the theater company Temporary Distortion.

As the filmmakers themselves pontificate, “In a series of warped, image-driven episodes, the archetypes of the American Road Story are deconstructed in action, dialogue, intent and ultimately meaning…these representations of the American promise of freedom and travel on the open road disintegrate into paradoxical fantasies of improbable escapism, perverse sexuality and futile violence.” It’s surreal, like a fever dream of a road movie enthusiast.

You can expect to find Welcome to Nowhere popping up in film festivals over the next few months. It will make its online premiere on September 17 at NoBudge.com where it will stream for a month only.

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still-of-peter-blomquist-in-welcome-to-nowhere-(bullet-hole-road)

GAUGUIN: THE FULL STORY. A FILM BY WALDEMAR JANUSZCZAK (2003)

“Oh, I hate that man. He left his wife and children, was cruel to Van Gogh, and bedded down all those Tahitian girls. I just cannot look at his paintings.” This is a simple-minded, uninformed, dull, and predictable comment that I have little patience or tolerance for, and I have heard it countless times whenever I list Paul Gauguin among the painters I identify with aesthetically. Several films have been made about about Gauguin, yet none of them have caught his essence, at least until this documentary by Waldemar Januszczak.  It is not a perfect film, but Gauguin is vividly present in it.

Donald Sutherland starred as Gauguin in the 1986 film Oviri, directed by Henning Carlson.  In that film, the banker Gauguin and his wife, Matte, are on a Sunday horse and carriage ride with his co-workers and their wives. The financiers engage in shop talk while Gauguin broods.  Finally, the frustrated painter taps the carriage driver on the shoulder and tells him to stop.  Gauguin looks at his wife and peers and says, “You are my jailers.”  With that, he jumps out of the carriage and walks off to find his paradise.  A nice story but one that is a total fiction, buying into the painter’s mythology.

In actuality, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), contrary to the repeated myths, was not a millionaire banker.  He was a successful stock broker.  He did not quit his job.  The stock market crashed and he lost his job.  Gauguin, who had been a “Sunday” painter for years, felt that this was reason enough to pursue painting full time, something he had been longing to do.  It was with this that his wife left him.  Gauguin did not desert his wife and five children.  His wife rejected him after he lost his income as a stockbroker.

Still from Gauguin: The Full StoryArt critic Waldemar Januszczak attempts to set the record straight.  “What’s to like about this man?,” Januszczak asks.  “First of all, there is the art, which needs no defense.  Gauguin painted some of the world’s most alluring woman and put them into several of the world’s most gorgeous pictures, but what I really like about him is that he did it for big and noble reasons.”  And then, most aptly, he says, “There is always more to a Gauguin than meets the eye.”  Januszczak covers Continue reading GAUGUIN: THE FULL STORY. A FILM BY WALDEMAR JANUSZCZAK (2003)

CAPSULE: CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS (2010)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: (narration)

PLOT: Granted unprecedented access, Werner Herzog takes his camera crew into the Chauvet

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

caves of Southern France to capture images of the oldest artwork ever discovered—Cro-Magnon paintings that date back approximately 30,000 years.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s essentially a very sober and serious documentary on an important subject, with the presence (and odd musings) of ultra-eccentric director Werner Herzog supplying the only weird connection.

COMMENTS:  There are two things to keep in mind about Cave of Forgotten Dreams.  One is that those of us who missed it in its theatrical run will probably never get the opportunity to experience the film as it was intended to be seen.  Cave was originally shot in 3D, and for maybe the first time in film history, there was actually a reason to access that third dimension.  The Chauvet paintings were drawn on rocky walls, and the artists incorporated the bulges and ripples into their sketches (Herzog comments on how, in flickering torchlight, the horses and lions drawn on the craggy walls might appear to move—comparing the cave itself to a sort of proto-cinema).  The second thing to keep in mind is that this is an Important work; which is not to say that it’s not also Interesting, just that Herzog takes his responsibility to document these previously unseen caverns very seriously, and if it comes down to a choice between being Interesting or Important, he errs towards the latter.  The Chauvet caves, which were hidden by a rockslide and preserved away from prying eyes for millennia before being accidentally discovered by spelunkers in 1994, are considered of such scientific and historical importance that only a small number of the world’s top scientists had previously been granted access. The crew was forced to film under restrictive conditions: they were only allowed access for a few hours each day, were confined to a two foot metal walkway so as not to disturb any of the primeval footprints or animal skulls littering the cavern floors, and could only use handheld cameras and low-heat lighting elements that they could carry with them.  Since there are only a few painted panels of interest to amateurs, Herzog fills up the running time with interviews with scientists who gave us background on the caves and on Paleolithic man.  While he does pick a few colorful characters to interrogate—most notably a guy who dresses in deerskin and serenades us with a rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” piped on a vulture-bone flute—these scarce quirky digressions aren’t as gonzo as some reports might have you believe.  The focus remains on the artwork.  Herzog passionately believes that when we look at these mysterious scrawlings of battling rhinos and half-buffalo women we are peeking at the first stirrings of the human soul, though through a cloudy window.  In the quiet finale the camera lingers over the detailed panels depicting cave lions and horses, remarkably rendered figures etched one on top of the other to suggest movement, while Ernst Reijseger’s mystical score of cellos, flutes and a droning choir plays an imaginary primordial liturgy.  It’s an intense tribute, and even a little trippy.  Of course, it wouldn’t be a Herzog film without at least one totally incomprehensible moment.  This time it occurs in a head-scratching epilogue.  After finishing his tour of the cave, Herzog takes a trip to a nearby experimental biosphere where a tropical climate has been created using heated water from a nearby nuclear reactor.  There, he films some albino alligators and proclaims them our doppelgängers, wondering how they would react to the caves.  It’s an obscure personal metaphor that provokes an almost universal response: “huh”?  But perhaps it’s the best way to end the documentary: we can’t completely understand what Cave‘s paintings meant to artists separated from us by 30,000 years of evolution any more than we can completely understand the peculiar vision of Werner Herzog.

Herzog made two documentaries screened in the U.S. this year, neither of which have been shortlisted for Academy Awards.  Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which certainly deserved a nomination, was ruled ineligible because it received a limited screening in 2010.  His other film, Into the Abyss, concerned interviews with three unrepentant Texas death row inmates, did not make the shortlist of fifteen features despite excellent reviews.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a journey to prehistory that’s simultaneously wondrous and tedious, profound and completely nuts — which is to say, quintessential Herzog.”–Jeanette Catsoulis, National Public Radio (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: PEPPERMINTA [2009]

DIRECTED BY: Pipilotti Rist

FEATURING: Ewelina Guzik, Sven Pippig, Sabine Timoteo, Elisabeth Orth
Still from Pepperminta (2009)

PLOT: A whimsical young woman brimming with optimism moves breezily through her hometown in Switzerland, picking up new friends Werwen (Sven Pippig)—a sickly momma’s boy—and Edna (Sabine Timoteo)—a cross-dressing gardener—along the way.  The trio’s mission is to teach others to live without fear through experimental color hypnosis.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Pepperminta is a creative, experimental, singular film that defies standard classification.  It is at once funny, thought-provoking, insightful, fanciful, sexual, and wistful; it contains memorable visuals, bizarre characters, impromptu musical numbers, and flashes of complete fantasy.  It’s wonderfully weird, to be sure, but its sentimentality and naive perspective can be cloying and alienating for some audiences.

COMMENTS: Swiss video artist Pipilotti Rist is known for saturated colors and themes of harmony and sensuality in her short works.  Pepperminta marks her first foray into feature-length narrative film, allowing her to expand upon these concepts in a more accessible manner.  Inspired by Pippi Longstocking, the story is a fantastical urban adventure set in a magical realist universe that’s open to Utopian ideas, and the central character is unflappable in her quest to bring joy, beauty, and strength to everyone she meets.  Pepperminta transforms the souls of those she chooses to be a part of her mission, healing them with flowers, touch, music, and contagious confidence.  She believes that through certain combinations of color a person’s outlook can be altered, and demonstrates this in several wacky encounters.

Pepperminta is primarily driven by its mysterious but likable characters.  The title character is quick-to-smile, red-haired, freckled, and feels completely at ease in her own body.  She wins others over to her side with unshakable kindness, even if her weirdness confuses most people at first.  Werwen is shy,  middle-aged, and allergic to everything; he easily falls in love with Pepperminta, most likely because she’s the first girl with whom he’s interacted.  With her help he conquers his fear of the outside world bred by his overprotective mother.  Edna is taciturn and serious-minded, slowly released from her hard outer shell as she opens herself up to her new friends, even tapping into the magical aspects of Pepperminta’s personality. Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: PEPPERMINTA [2009]